By Dr. Timothy Buhrt, Executive Director
In the early part of August, I was in the process of leaving the office as I reflected upon the experiences of the day. Within a short period time, I was driving through the corn and bean fields in Sandwich and began contemplating the plans for the evening. At that point in time I remembered that I needed to pick up our oldest child from his first day of football practice. Given that our son had never played football before, I was excited to see him and to ask him various questions about his new team. When I arrived at the practice field, I began to recall memories of playing sports as a child. However, the excitement and peace of the evening drive to the football practice quickly changed when I walked toward the area where the children were standing and looked inside our son’s large football helmet to see his face. From the tears in his eyes I could tell that he was not enjoying his first day of football. As we drove away from football practice that night, our son began crying and insisted that he did not want to play football anymore. Later that night, after dinner, playing, and putting the children to bed, I sat out in the backyard and thought about our son’s request to quit football. In the process of reflecting upon his request, I wondered, what were the benefits of children playing sports?
Children who play sports have the opportunity to address important developmental issues within the context of an enjoyable physical activity. Just like children who play a musical instrument, engage in dramatic performances, or participate in Scouting, children who play sports focus their energy on a specific activity in hopes of having fun. In the process of this play, children are confronted with various physical, social, emotional, and cognitive challenges that enable them to strengthen natural skills and abilities they already possess. To better understand the interaction between play and childhood development, let us look at four different psychological benefits of participating in sports.
Physical Development. Children who participate in sports are challenged to engage in physical tasks that improve their coordination and condition. Whether a child is running the bases in baseball, shooting a basket in basketball, or catching a ball in football, a young person will have the opportunity to repeatedly challenge himself or herself to improve upon natural abilities. In the process of responding to this challenge, a child will utilize small and large muscles leading to improvements in their physical development. In addition, children will improve their physical health by engaging in regular exercise in a structured manner. Most families would find it difficult to create consistent exercise routines for their children given the numerous demands facing parents and young persons each week.
Social Development. Children who participate in sports have the opportunity to develop social relationships with peers and adults with the focus of their collective attention centering on a shared task. As children and adults work together as a team, they have repeated experiences of success and disappointment leading to an increased relational attachment with one another. Whether a child is shy, outgoing, or impulsive, participating on a sports team provides young persons with an opportunity to spend consistent time with others. Not only will a child learn how to resolve relational difficulties with teammates and opponents, they will learn more about themselves as they encounter relational events that highlight their strengths and weaknesses as a person.
Emotional Development. Children who participate in sports engage in concrete tasks that enable them to evaluate their performance leading to opportunities for celebrations and improved self-esteem. When children experience the joy of getting a hit, making a basket, or scoring a touchdown, they have powerful emotional and physical evidence of their developing physical skills. If you combine a child’s self-assessments with the cheers from peers and adults, young people will develop increased confidence in themselves as they naturally stride toward mastering a particular challenge.
Cognitive Development. Children who participate in sports are confronted with the cognitive challenge of uniting their dreams with the reality of a given situation. Most children dream of engaging in a particular profession, hoping to spend their life putting out dangerous fires, riding in a spaceship to the moon, or catching the winning touchdown pass for the Chicago Bears. When a child participates in sports, his or her dream of being a professional player is quickly tempered by the results of a given play or the final tally of a game. For most children, the feedback provided from a particular sport enables them to naturally realign their goals to new activities that are more fulfilling. For children who possess advanced skills in sports, they are challenged to improve their natural abilities in a way to fulfill their childhood dreams.
You are probably wondering how the story ended with our son. The next morning, when I informed him that he would be completing this football season and he did not have to sign up again next year if he did not want to participate in football, he was upset. However since that painful first night of football practice, I have noticed several changes in our son. Firstly, he is capable of running around the entire football field in oversized equipment without getting winded. Secondly, he has established new relationships with children he would have never met without participating in football. Thirdly, he seems quite excited and pleased with himself when the coaches compliment him on making a tackle in practice. And lastly, our son no longer dreams of being a professional football player who catches the winning touchdown pass on Sunday. In spite of the painful beginning to football season and the ending of his professional dream, participating in sports has enabled our son to acquire some valuable lessons about himself and life.